2017 Spring Breakthrough Course Videos

Spring Breakthrough banner

Confronting Climate Change in North Carolina

Droughts in Australia, floods in India, heat waves in Europe, and melting ice in the Arctic:  climate change seems to affect only remote and far-away places.  Or does it?  This course looks at how geology and climate have made North Carolina what it is today:  from settlement patterns, agricultural development, to industry and tourism.  How is current climate change already affecting our state, and what dramatic changes will it bring to our state’s wildlife, ecology, agriculture, city planning, and the tourist economy?  We will visit sites in the Triangle Area and travel to the Outer Banks to bear witness to how vulnerable North Carolina is to climate change.  Along the way, we will hear from people who are preparing for and seek to lessen the social, ecological, and economic impacts a significantly warmer planet might have. 

  • Alexander Glass, Lecturer and Co-Director of Undergraduate Studies, Earth and Ocean Sciences, Nicholas School of the Environment

Encountering Thoreau in the South

We will read large portions of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Students will be asked to reflect on this classic treatment of an American landscape in light of their own walks, bike rides, sitting times, and other excursions in and around Durham. If we listen to Thoreau, does that affect how we experience this place? If we listen to local voices, such as civil rights activist Pauli Murray, does that affect how we read Thoreau? The goal of this course is to reflect carefully together on the experience of place – both our own experience and how such experience has worked as an American theme.

  • Jedediah Purdy, Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law

Hamilton: Music, History and Politics

How did a Broadway musical bring an 18th century historical figure off the pages of history books and back into the public discourse and pop culture? Does the Tony award winning musical Hamilton, which compellingly portrays Alexander Hamilton, co-author of the Federalist Papers and founder of the U.S. financial system, as the avatar of a nation that is “young, scrappy and hungry,” present a historically accurate narrative? Critics suggest that this portrait exaggerates Hamilton’s opposition to slavery and upholds a man known for his distrust of popular democracy and embrace of big banks. So what’s the story? Are there missing songs from Hamilton that need to be written? This course will consider key historical documents and disputes over American politics and identity as fodder for students to write their own songs. With expert coaching by Duke’s own student composers, lyricists and producers, participants in the class will test their conceptual and creative wits. This course is for students of history and politics who want to learn how to set it to music, for students of music and theater who want to learn about history and politics, and for all students interested in any part of it.

  • Noah Pickus, Associate Provost and Senior Advisor to the Provost; Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics; and Associate Research Professor of Public Policy Studies at the Sanford School of Public Policy

Socrates on Trial

“Socrates does wrong by corrupting the youth and believing in gods that the city does not, but in other new spiritual things.” That was the charge, guilty the verdict, and death the penalty. Explore this famous episode in the history of philosophy from the perspective of ancient Athenian law. Discuss speeches that were delivered more than 2000 years ago in Athenian lawcourts. Grapple with the charges that were brought against Socrates and the defense that he mounted. As we learn, we will also take time to explore the outdoors and dine together.

  • Joshua Sosin, Associate Professor, Department of Classical Studies

Free Beer: And Other Forces That Get Us to Misbehave

Despite our intentions, why do we so often fail to act in our own best interest? Why do we promise to skip the chocolate cake, only to find ourselves drooling our way into temptation when the dessert tray rolls around? What are the forces that influence our behavior? Each day of this course will cover a different topic in behavioral economics, including opportunities for students to design their own experiments and collect data. Late in the evening, we will gather together over hot chocolate to discuss the implication of this topic and the results to societal questions at large.

  • Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics

Preventing Violent Extremism in America

The horrific mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the ambush of police officers during a protest in Dallas appear to have been executed by individuals inspired by radical ideologies.  Why do radicalized individuals engage in this violence?  What can individuals, families, communities, and governments do to prevent these atrocities?  In this digital age of social media, are there things that can be done to change their minds before it is too late? We will meet with local leaders grappling with these issues and travel to Washington, DC to meet with experts. Plus, we will formulate our own campaign for counteracting extremism.

  • David Schanzer, Associate Professor of the Practice, Sanford School of Public Policy


Puppies tell us so much about ourselves. They can help us answer important questions like, how should we bring up babies? What makes us attractive? Why do others make us feel good? Puppies also have some startling similarities with children, and have a particular social intelligence that is part of the reason why dogs are now the most successful mammals on the planet besides humans. We will visit a shelter and play cognitive games that might help puppies get adopted. We will go to the zoo and meet other baby animals that help us think about what makes puppies so special. We will meet puppies in training to help people with mental and physical disabilities. Spending time with puppies will allow us to explore concepts in cognitive neuroscience, veterinary science, evolution, behavioral economics and more. Come play with some puppies with us.

  • Brian Hare, Associate Professor, Department of Evolutionary Anthropology
  • Vanessa Woods, Research Scientist, Department of Evolutionary Anthropology

The Biology of Popular Science Fiction TV & Movies

How is the use of magic inherited among people in the Harry Potter universe? How and why are there so many humanoid species on Star Trek (or planets with plants, for that matter)? How could The Doctor look completely different after regeneration? Come explore the entertaining intersection of science with science fiction and research potential biological explanations to your favorite Science Fiction media. Course is aimed for students with an interest in sci-fi/fantasy, a healthy imagination, and little to no biology background.

  • Mohamed Noor, Professor and Department Chair, Department of Biology
  • Eric Spana, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Department of Biology